by Dr. Lori Verderame
The term china doll is typically used to describe a porcelain or bisque doll with a glazed finished head. Unlike multi-material Madame Alexander dolls made during the 1940s and beyond, china dolls from the late 1800s and early 1900s were made of bisque ceramic and porcelain. Body parts of the dolls were varied and the dolls which date to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were typically made in pottery manufacturing factories in France, Germany, and elsewhere.
A mold is used in the ceramic firing process to make the china doll’s head. Some heads have a glazed finish and some are unglazed for a matte finish. Often, the heads and faces are highlighted with painted lips, cheeks, and eyebrows. Skin color is achieved by painting or tinting in order to resemble a flesh tone. Most china dolls have glass eyes that open and close when the doll is moved with the aid of weights attached to the eyes. The doll’s eyes will open when upright and close when laid down as if sleeping. Doll wigs were made of mohair or actual human hair on the more expensive, high quality dolls.
The majority of china dolls have bodies that are made of a combination of materials including ceramics, cloth, papier mache, leather, wood or wood chips, composition matter or pulp, sawdust and glue. It is rare that a china doll’s entire body is made of ceramic to match the head. Some doll bodies are made with a ball and socket joint construction and some are hinged together at the shoulders, elbows, or knees.
In the mid 1800s, most china dolls represented adults, specifically French dolls. By the 1870s to 1910s, china dolls were formed to look more childlike resembling toddlers and babies. German bisque dolls are the most common types of china dolls and they were made by firms such as Armand Marseilles and Simon and Halbig, Kammer and Reinhardt, Heubach and Kestner. Some of the most sought after and collectible china dolls were made by firms such as Jumeau, Bru, Steiner and Rohmer, Simone and Huret, and Gaultier. The famous French “bebes” or baby dolls in china were widely popular and intended for children of the wealthy elite classes.
What to Look For
Marks on these specialty antique china dolls are typically impressed into the back of the doll’s neck beneath the wig. To reveal the mark, carefully lift up the doll’s wig. Do not lift the glue used to adhere the wig to the doll’s head. Marks usually show the name of the firm, symbols, and mold numbers. See an example on a German Bisque Doll. These identifying marks indicate which firm produced the doll and the mold used to produce the shape of the doll’s head. By understanding pottery marks that are used on dolls, you can research the age of the doll. Keep the doll’s original clothing as it impacts value. Do not store an antique china doll in cardboard boxes or wooden drawers. It is best to display these dolls in the open air away from direct sunlight or heat.
Get an online appraisal report of your antique china doll from Dr. Lori.